Gesprekken Met Vrienden
A Retrospective On Learning Dutch
In a few weeks I will be leaving the Netherlands. For the last year I have been living and working here. Before my arrival I decided to spend as much time as I could learning the language and culture. One year later, I can speak, read, and write Dutch to an approximately B1 level. With some difficulty, I can read books, watch television, and have conversations—though my range of expression is limited, and I sometimes struggle to understand people. I have also had several jobs in which I spoke nothing but Dutch.
Getting this far wouldn’t have been possible without a few things working in my favour. I was grinding Duolingo in the weeks before my arrival, so I came armed with some basic words and phrases. I had some basic understanding of the grammar, most of it interpolated from my knowledge of English and German. Finally, my girlfriend is Dutch, so I always had a native speaker on hand to answer my questions.
They say the hardest thing about learning Dutch is that everyone already speaks English. It’s true: Dutch people are very good at English. They are also practical people who want to facilitate communication, and will switch to English if they hear (or suspect) that you are a foreigner. This happens in big international cities (like Groningen or Amsterdam) to an almost comical extent, with Dutch people accidentally speaking English to each other!
Outside of “international circles”, knowledge of English is much more passive: most understand it to some extent, but they can only speak it in limited circumstances. Many could not understand my New Zealand accent; it was just too unfamiliar. Mastery of a language, I have realised, is less about your knowledge of it in the abstract, and more about your familiarity with using it in lots of different settings.
Acquiring that familiarity required me to push on with speaking Dutch, even when people tried to switch to English. As soon as we both acknowledge that English is an option, our brains just aren’t going to try very hard to keep the Dutch going. In most cases I rule out English completely. Once or twice I have pretended not to speak it at all.
I think this is the best way. When there is a mismatch in fluency between two speakers, you both need to get on the same wave-length before there can be genuine two-way communication. By removing the expectation that you will speak English, the other person is forced to come down to your level, even if that only consists of caveman-like utterances; until you get there, you are neither using nor improving your Dutch.
Getting even to this point required a lot of everyday practice. A bit of writing, a bit of reading, a bit of listening, a bit of speaking. I rarely studied grammar; what I know I mostly picked up from my existing knowledge of English and German. I only looked up unfamiliar constructions if I kept encountering them, or had to learn them in order to say something specific.
Books were my favourite way to get used to new kinds of sentences. I always read with a dictionary at hand, and sometimes use Google Translate. Comics are good because the pictures give additional context. Otherwise I read books written specifically for language learners, such as those by Eenvoudig Communiceren. Children’s books may also work, but children have quite broad vocabularies and their grammar can be surprisingly complex. Many of the children’s classics (e.g. De Kameleon) are also written in a more old-timey form of Dutch, which makes them harder to understand. In addition to these easy texts, it was helpful to read something a bit more challenging every now and then. The news articles on the NoS website were perfect for this: not too long, and written in a simple, plain Dutch that is intended to be readable by any adult person.
To get a feel for how the language sounded, I watched a lot of TV shows and videos. I watched Kuifje (Tin-Tin) and Floris. I also watched YouTube channels for language learners, such as Simpel Nederlands and Easy Dutch. If something is hard, I watch it at half-speed with subtitles. I prefer Dutch subtitles, though it was sometimes necessary to use English subtitles (I tried to get off these ASAP). I also re-watch everything until I understand most of it without subtitles.
If you get enough input from different sources, vocabulary seems to come automatically. I did do a lot of Duolingo and made my own custom Anki decks and word-lists, though my success with these didn’t seem to have any bearing on my ability to actually use the word in a conversation. Once I was having conversations, I only drilled words I would be likely to encounter in real-life; for example, when I got a job as a cleaner, I started drilling words related to cleaning.
The main thing I hoped to avoid was getting stuck in routine. When you are doing the same exercises every day, your mind goes on auto-pilot, and you stop learning. If things got too familiar, I changed them up. Occasionally, I would feel like I had hit a wall. When this happened I took a short break; after a few days or a week, I would come back to studying, and immediately shoot past where I had left off.
By doing all these things, my Dutch steadily progressed for the first six months or so. But then it plateaued: I had the basics down, but I just couldn’t react fast enough to hold a spontaneous conversation. My solution was to have Dutch conversations with my girlfriend every day for at least 10-15 minutes. Most of our conversations were totally gibberish back-and-forths based on whatever random phrases about turtles and sandwiches I had just learned on Duolingo; the point was simply to get used to the sound of the language until it sat right in the ear and felt normal in the mouth.
After only a week of this my comprehension had already greatly improved. I could suddenly understand what strangers were saying to me. If they used unfamiliar words, I could often guess them from context, or clarify what they meant within Dutch. Now that I didn’t ever have to switch to English, the amount of exposure I had to the language was greatly increased; instead of using it only a few times per day on rehearsed occasions, I was having spontaneous conversations all day long.
I even accidentally had a job interview in Dutch! As I sat in the office waiting my turn, I struck up a random conversation with the person sitting next to me. As we chatted, the interviewer came out, introduced herself, and led me into the interview room. Though I only understood ~50% of what she said, it was enough to conduct a (somewhat stilted) job interview (God bless the social graces of HR ladies). Nonetheless, it was a huge morale boost; I had finally used the language to achieve something!
This will sound like some kind of wishy-washy Buddhist bollocks, but it was the most important realisation I made. Before I could understand what people were saying, I had to give up trying to understand them. My mind resisted at first. When I read I often stop to look up the meanings of words, or to think about the structure of a sentence. You can’t do that in a conversation; and when you think about it, that isn’t what you do in your native language either; you just talk.
My conversational Dutch improved heaps when I stopped trying to parse the individual words. Now I just respond to the gist of what I think has been said, usually with the first thing that pops into my head. If I only understand 10% of what is said, I will just respond to that 10%. For example:
My dog died last week.
Yeah, he was a German shepherd.
Oh, man. My dad used to have a German shepherd.
. . . (etc)
It is amazing how often this works, and more than a bit baffling to realise just how little human beings need to understand each other in order to communicate.
Sometimes, I fasten onto the wrong thing in a sentence, or miss a critical word. One time my boss asked me to get some cleaning supplies to clean a particular room. I heard the bit about the cleaning supplies, but not the bit about going to get them. “Nee hoor” I replied, as in, “No, I don’t have that stuff with me.” She thought I was refusing to do my job.
We had a good laugh about it, which is the best way to defuse an awkward situation. Another strategy is to just not let on that you are confused and allow the conversation to move on; an additional piece of information will often clarify something said in an earlier sentence, thus you can still get a decent impression of what has been said overall (and pretend that you understood all along).
Awkward conversations seem unavoidable. Now that my Dutch is fluent enough to feel somewhat spontaneous, people sometimes find it weird that I speak a bit “off”. Others laugh at my mistakes, or get frustrated or embarrassed when talking to me. This is almost always more about awkwardness and miscommunication than it is bad intent. But there is unfortunately no way around it. The best strategy I have found is to simply have no shame and bulldoze over every awkward moment.
Self-confidence will always make up for inarticulacy. That means that learning to speak is, unfortunately, an extrovert’s game: when robbed of your verbal fluency, body language becomes more important than ever for conveying your message. Eye contact. Short, direct sentences. Lots of gestures. Varied tone of voice. Exaggerated expressions. You need to use all of these to make yourself understood.
Unlike many other things, it is impossible to fake how good you are at a language around its native speakers. I think this is why I feel a genuine sense of achievement in having learned to speak Dutch. There have been a couple of bad experiences, but when I try to reflect upon them, I find that I can barely remember them; the feeling of speaking another language is just too exhilarating: to crack jokes, to grasp the expressions and whimsies of another culture, to see its mindset inscribed in words; to dream in those words, and to realise, upon waking, that I have made them my own.